What do conservatives need to do to win policy battles for more liberty? Five hundred-some leaders of the conservative movement shared a lot of ideas on that question last week in New Orleans. They—think tanks executives, scholars of public policy, grassroots activists, and donors—had gathered for The Heritage Foundation’s 37th Annual Resource Bank.
The answers that emerged from the meeting could be summed up this way: Conservatives need to do a better job of reaching new audiences with better stories told better and marketed better. At various sessions, the conference-goers were encouraged to consider questions such as: Are people opening your emails? If not, why not? Does your organization have the culture of testing and measurement it needs in order to learn what kind of messaging works and what doesn’t? Are you reaching the right 20,000 people who can make a difference in policy battles? Does your content engage and motivate people with emotion? Are you passing up opportunities to use humor effectively? Are you doing too much preaching and not enough listening to your audience? Are you building trust by being involved in your communities? Do you have the right messenger to reach new communities?
Are we willing to identify villains? Hollywood filmmaker Jeremy Boreing underlined the emphasis on messaging with an address titled: “The Worst Story Ever Told.” Boreing explained to the audience that they were no longer really conservatives; since the Left today controls the institutions, the culture, and much of government, those who oppose the Left aren’t really conserving anything. They are the rebels, he explained, and they can learn from Star Wars—that movie about a rebellion a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. What did the rebels in Star Wars want—other than to defeat the Empire? Star Wars never explained that, but it did show the Empire doing lots of evil things, like blowing up whole planets. And that was enough to get you to root for the rebels. Identifying a villain is essential to telling a good story. Conservatives today, said Boreing, are afraid to call the Left evil. Boreing pointed out that even Ronald Reagan, happy warrior that he was, never passed up an opportunity to insult the Democrats, and the result was that Reagan got more registered Democrats to vote for him than any other Republican presidential candidate. “You are not going to get anybody to go with you on your trip to destroy the Death Star if they believe that Darth Vader is just a bad administrator,” said Boreing, who added that if Mitt Romney had lived in the Star Wars universe, his program would have been “to bring the Death Star in on time and under budget.”
The Left, meanwhile, plays by no rules. The Left is more than happy to call conservatives evil, and that is why conservatives are losing the culture. The Left’s agenda to marginalize conservatives was the topic of a panel discussion featuring John Fund, Cleta Mitchell, Stanley Kurtz, and Tracie Sharp. Fund explained that the idea of “institutional racism” is the Left’s way of saying conservatives are permanently guilty and he warned: “The Left is getting ready to yell ‘racism’ in a crowded theater” to win the 2014 elections.
Mitchell described the continuing battle over Internal Revenue Service regulation of speech by nonprofits. The Left, she explained, coalesces around process issues; conservatives make a mistake by ignoring those issues. “He who writes the rules wins the gold,” said Mitchell. Regarding the IRS regulations, Sharp noted that conservatives need to challenge the Left’s narrative that there is something wrong with anonymous giving. Kurtz, speaking about the intellectual connections between today’s Left and the 1960s radicals, added that conservatives need to get over their reluctance to expose the Left’s bad faith tactics.
What’s the plan on health care? Among the many panel discussions that focused on policy issues, the panel on what to do about ObamaCare stood out. In particular John Goodman of the National Center for Policy Analysis made the case that conservatives should coalesce around the strategy of creeping free markets into the ObamaCare exchanges. Repealing along won’t work, he explained, because ObamaCare has destroyed the private market. Randy Barnett, meanwhile, urged Republicans to resist federalizing tort law and then calling that health care reform. In the first place, tort reform isn’t health care reform. In the second place, however wise particular reform plans might be, tort law is a state responsibility not a federal one.
Defenders of religious liberty recognized. The Heritage Foundation awarded its annual Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship the Green family and the Hahn family for their defense of religious liberty in the courts. The Greens are the owners of the retail chain Hobby Lobby, while the Hahns are the owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties. Both companies objected to the Department of Health and Human Services mandate on companies to cover abortifacient drugs in their employee health plans. They sued HHS on First Amendment grounds. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case just last week. The award is named after the late entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Salvatori, and is given every year to an individual or group of individuals whose work advances the principles and virtues of nation’s Founders. Steve Green accepted the award on behalf of the Green family, and Anthony Hahn accepted the award on behalf of the Hahn family.
Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz were there, too! Gov. Jindal, addressing the conference over dinner, also saluted those fighting for religious liberty. He spoke about the intolerance shown by liberals to Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty over comments he made in defense of the traditional family. “America didn’t create religious liberty,” he said. “Religious liberty created America.”
Ted Cruz closed the conference with a townhall-style conversation with the attendees. Cruz summed the economic situation be noting that Reaganomics allowed people to start businesses in their parents garage while Obamanomics allows people to move into their parents garage.